On March 16, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that restaurants and bars would have to close to in-house customers from March 17 to May 11, laying out a strict but defined timeline to give business owners an idea of how long they'd have to suffer through drastically reduced revenue. But on April 20, ambiguity became the new reality, when Hancock stated that "the order will be extended, you can bet on that."
At the time, he also indicated that "there will be some easing into this," but over two weeks later, the city has not provided any details on what that easing-in might entail. The reluctance to commit to a new date is understandable; after all, a pandemic is unpredictable and the wrong decision could lead to more illness and loss of life. Still, even if Hancock couldn't give a firm date (and restaurateurs were definitely hoping to hear one today), they'd at least appreciate learning why he couldn't, and what will be required of them when he finally does.
Is the city looking for clear signs of a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases before it decides on that date? In the meantime, is it playing an active role in making sure those numbers go down?
And once the date is determined, what will restaurants need to do in order to open safely? How many customers will be allowed into dining rooms, bars and patios, and for how long? Who will be wearing masks? Will guests need to have their temperatures taken, provide saliva samples or sign a waiver before they can enter?
Restaurant owners are waiting for guidance, and in the absence of that, they're forced to make their own decisions based on nothing more than guesswork.
Someone who was particularly good at hitting people in the mouth once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth." The COVID crisis has been a big hit, knocking plans into bits and pieces. But fear and inaction won't make things better; although it's been punched hard, Denver still needs a plan.
Today, May 5, Hancock held a press conference to talk about the end of his stay-at-home order on May 8, but he did not talk about the hospitality industry, beyond noting that it's one area being studied by a task force, adding that there's "no schedule for restaurants and bars," and repeating Governor Jared Polis's social-distancing mandates, which will be in force through May 26.
At his own press conference on May 4, Polis didn't mention restaurants until he was asked for an update.
"We don't have that date," Polis said in response to a constituent who encouraged him to let eatery owners know when they'll be allowed to offer on-site dining again more than a day in advance. "Yes, restaurants need to know about a week before they open" so they can inform waitstaff and the like, he added — "but we need to look at the data over the next couple of weeks. So whether it's late May or June 1, we need to make sure we get the guidelines right. We want to make sure it's done safely and inspires confidence."
A week doesn't seem like much notice for restaurants that have had to lay off staff, empty their refrigerators and put off rent and bill payments to get back up and running. They'll need to arrange food delivery at a time when restaurant distributors are likely low on stock, rehire staff and train them in new health and safety practices, reconfigure interior spaces and patios for safe distancing, and come up with ideas on how to keep customers from being new disease vectors.
Not only is a week not much notice, but restaurant groups have already asked city and state officials for at least two.
There's no call to reopen restaurants too soon or to do so in an unsafe manner. There's only a need for guidance and answers. When will the hospitality industry get either of those?